It began, as things sometimes do on social media, with an emoji. A pineapple emoji to be exact.
Fans of Sanditon, an eight-part Jane Austen adaptation currently airing on PBS Masterpiece, have been deploying the icon on Twitter as a shorthand for their esteem and support of the show, which padded out the surviving chapters of Austen’s last, unfinished novel and turned them into a full-blown Regency romance. But if the scenes of sex and male nudity were not enough to set off paroxysms of controversy, the emoji certainly did.
“The fans decided it was a cute little thing they could use to promote Sanditon, but I thought it was a bit racist in the context of the show,” said Amanda-Rae Prescott, a Caribbean-American social media manager who lives in New York.
The pineapple appears in the second episode. Lady Denham, the very rich, very acid-tongued dowager of Sanditon House, obtains it from a hothouse to serve as a centerpiece of a luncheon she is throwing in honor of Georgiana Lambe, an even wealthier West Indian heiress who happens to be black. (In her fragment, Austen describes Miss Lambe, her first unambiguously non-white character, as “half mulatto, chilly and tender.”)
Tightly coiled and wary—wouldn’t you be, too?—Georgiana, like the tropical fruit, is out of her milieu in the cold, soggy seaside town of Sanditon. To add insult to injury, she must also weather Lady Denham’s barely-disguised contempt. (“You must be used to being another man’s property” is one particularly choice remark.) Far from honoring Georgiana’s heritage, as Lady Denham had condescended, the pineapple is reframed as an object of derision, a message that is further driven home when another guest lops off the crown with his knife, only to reveal that its insides are crawling with maggots.